It’s hard to stifle a giggle as the lights go down for Total Recall when the name of the film’s production studio, Original Film, comes up on screen. Coming 22 years after the Paul Verhoeven-directed version, it’s hard to find much “original” about this Len Wiseman production, at least on the surface. It doesn’t help the filmmakers’ arguments that they insist the film is more closely based on the source material, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’; but really swathes of Total Recall 2012’s content comes from the 1990 film.
Wiseman, that packer of action who brought us the highly entertaining Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) and the remarkably successful Underworld series, has here steered into cinemas an action movie that builds on its predecessor only in terms of gloss, not in terms of depth or content.
Colin Farrell, on autopilot, stars as Doug Quaid, a worker at a robot factory in a futuristic Britain, which has become the world’s sole superpower after a chemical holocaust made most of the planet uninhabitable. This ever-so-slightly despotic Britain rules over a colony, called the Colony, in what was once Australia, and its supposedly oppressed workforce are imported every day via a colossal elevator, the Fall, which connects the territories via the Earth’s core.
But Quaid is not who he thinks he is. Bored with his dull life and his outrageously beautiful wife (how?!), he attempts to have false memories of a more exciting reality inserted in his brain through a system called Rekall, only to cause a major system crash when it turns out he already has those memories, for real, and everything else has been inserted. Learning he is actually Carl Hauser, a military big wig turned pro-Colony freedom fighter, he goes on the run from the cops (both human and robot) and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is also an imposter and the top agent assigned to keep him under lock and key.
Soon Quaid/Hauser teams up with his real love interest Melina (Jessica Biel), and following clues left by himself before the memory implant embarks on a quest to save the Colony from all-out enslavement by the Big Brotherish Britain.
Production-wise Total Recall has more money than it knows what to do with. Inspired by, amongst others, Blade Runner and Minority Report, it adequately shows a fusion of cultures (Asian and South American) in the Colony, and the soaring metropolis that has built up around London in the United Federation of Britain. And yet, there’s nothing particularly dystopic about this world. Its class system seems unfair, but not much worse than what we have at present, and the horror that the villains wish to unleash is never actually seen. Unlike the drab and lifeless world of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, this doesn’t look at all like the worst of possible futures.
Yet there are plenty of fine touches in the production; the gravity reversing elevator of the Fall feels fresh to sci-fi, while electric web guns, magnetic hover cars and a device that shoots hundreds of tiny cameras show signs of creativity and inspiration lacking in much of the script. Quaid finds himself tracked not by a bug in his brain as in the original film, but by a mobile phone built into his hand – a technology that feels not impossibly far off now.
Where Wiseman excels is in the lengthy action scenes, which include some barnstorming set pieces, all of which slightly overstay their welcome but never exhaust. Upon being surrounded by elite cops, Quaid proceeds to take them out in a frenetic, sweeping digitally altered single take, shortly before being confronted by his vicious, flexible fake wife, who proceeds to teach him a move or two. Beckinsale is given the majority of the best stunts to do, and performs them with plenty of panache – her knees-first slides are some of the most memorable moments in the film. A major central action piece, involving a series of elevators that can travel sideways as well as upwards, feels a little too much like a Mario Bros. game, with the characters leaping from platform to platform and avoiding getting crushed in corridors. Indeed, the entire film has quite a computer gamey feel to it. The epilepsy-inducing scrolling lens flares don’t help.
The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4) is as lacking in urgency as it is in one liners (comparatively, the 1990 film was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who wrote Alien). Worse still it fails to build in any way on the original story, which given 22 years has passed is almost inexcusable. In the interim audiences have been exposed to The Matrix, eXistenZ and Inception, so questions of reality and identity are no longer new, or even pressing. The one scene in the original Total Recall that truly questioned Quaid’s reality (he is confronted by a scientist who claims he is dreaming) is reproduced here in an exhaustingly extended form, where Quaid is confronted by a close friend rather than an expert. The conclusion to the scene is slightly different, but not enough to justify a Total Recall post-Matrix.
Even the always brilliant Bryan Cranston as the villain Cohaagen can’t elevate this film beyond a passing entertainment. Bill Nighy and John Cho show up in brief cameos, but they could be anyone. While Beckinsale looks as though she is always having plenty of fun (her husband directing may have given her free rein), Farrell only really pushes his limits during the action sequences, and slumps when he’s not on the run. A highlight of the film sees him come face to face with an interactive recording of his former self – the two Farrells are played by his very different guises, the clean-shaven, slick-haired, baby-faced Farrell of In Bruges and Phone Booth, and the goateed, dangerous Farrell of Daredevil and Intermission. It’s a cute touch. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel, usually a limited actress, is deadwood in a criminally underwritten role.
For all its gloss and bang, this is a fun but forgettable sci-fi action movie, that crucially fails to justify itself as a remake at this time. There’s plenty of talent evident, let’s just hope it can be used more substantially in future.